It’s a question we almost never ask, so let me explain. If you’ve been around youth sports in any capacity, you know how critical it seems to the success of a team to get its hands on “the good kid.” At the beginning of every youth season, we see the frenzy that comes along with trying to get that “stud” on your team: parents and coaches rigging player allocation drafts and/or gaming the system by adding the parent of another “good kid” as an assistant so that the children have to be on a particular team together. As long as we’ve had youth sports, we have had adults scrambling to get those special talents on their team. And who could blame them? At the youth level, the difference in ability between the good players and the not-so-good players is about as drastic as it will ever be, so snatching up any outstanding performers is likely to pay big dividends in the ol’ win-loss column. In a competitive setting, it is human nature to try to hoard the best things for yourself, and this is largely how sports operate when it comes to high-performing athletes. I mean, if the Dallas Cowboys didn’t look out for themselves and hoard their player resources, that dynasty in the 1990s likely never would have happened.
But, I have some bad news for you: your youth team is not the Dallas Cowboys, as much as we might want to believe it to be the case. And if you run a youth sports organization, your goal is not simply to identify and distribute those children with superior athletic ability, but to work on designing and implementing systems that operate to develop that ability in as many children as possible. And, make no mistake, these are very different goals.
So, I’ll return to my title question: What if we didn’t treat these young all-stars as the rare, finite keys to success, but instead worked to develop a system that approached the development of that potential in all our athletes? We tend to glorify natural ability so much that we don’t often work to develop the abilities of those who don’t seem to have them. This may not be a huge problem for the one 8-and-under coed basketball team you coach this Spring; however, if we are looking at our bigger systems of development we can see larger failings to adequately develop a broad pool of young athletes. But if we stop treating an 11-year old soccer prodigy as a finished product who can win us games and start treating all the 11-year olds in our program as potential prodigies, we actually can create a subtle-yet-powerful paradigm shift.
I’ll leave you with a little food for thought…Here is Malcolm Gladwell, discussing some studies on elite Canadian hockey players and their birthdays, which were cited in his Outliers book. Is this related to what we’ve just discussed? What happens when we rethink aspects of our systems for athlete development? Could things as seemingly innocuous as the way we treat young stars or the birthday cut-off we use really make a difference in our outcomes? Yes. And we here at Hook & Ladder have the background and know-how to help you start to see your organization through a different lens.